In 1955 a writer named Robert Ruark wrote a bestseller titled, Something of Value. It's a story of the Mau Mau uprising in Africa. It describes white settlers, intent on "civilizing" the natives by imposing their own culture, education, and government on the tribe. The settlers failed to comprehend that their actions took away the values inherent in the tribal culture. Attempts to entrench Westernized notions of law, social structure, and material culture destroyed a way of life of a thriving tribal society.
Could something similar be happening here in Washington state?
We have our own group of well-educated citizens with intentions most noble, who are proposing laws that will change how people live. Whether their plan elicits anything like the Mau Mau retaliation remains to be seen. The two bills, HB1490 and SB5687, have been sent to the Washington Legislature and, in principle, they remove local government's right to decide how and where to allow housing — and ultimately mandate the style of life for residents. If enacted, such a measure creates precedent for more invasive mandated-lifestyle legislation in the future. It is the classic camel’s nose in the tent.
Al Gore has managed to scare the hell out us. Anyone whose head isn’t buried in the sand knows we damned well better start paying attention to how we live on Mother Earth. But in our haste to do something, anything, to save the planet, we might unintentionally join the chorus of those who make their living telling us how we should live.
In this instance, the missionaries aren’t white, but green. And they come bearing Transit Oriented Development (TOD).
They support organizations like Futurewise, Transportation Choices Coalition, and think tanks like Sightline. It would be wonderful if the sponsors and promoters for this legislation were to set an example by living in the kind of housing they propose, but initial checking finds that most of the people involved with these organizations live in urban areas in single-family homes and many drive cars, just like everyone else.
The image of TOD being sold to legislators, however, resembles a Rick Steves' travelogue. We imagine couples walking down quaint little streets, dining in sidewalk cafes. The smell of fresh baked bread, cheese, and sausage floats in the air. There are faint sounds of violins and laughter.
The reality of TOD development in Seattle will more resemble the Belltown neighborhood, which now has densities similar to the proposed legislation. In Belltown, the woman brave enough to go for a walk in the evening carries a Glock in her purse. The smell floating in the air is vomit spewed in a shop doorway and the lingering aroma of Canadian bud. She walks to the beat of blasting music from night clubs and the occasional pop of...car backfire? Or is it guns?
The imagery of walkable neighborhoods being sold to the public everywhere, not just here, ignores much of the reality of dense development in American cities. Laws can be created that mandate density, but cities cannot require businesses to locate there, especially the kind of businesses the planners hope for.
Worse, business districts are more often seen as tax revenue rather than essential components of a working city. Typically, government fails to deliver the level of services necessary to keep streets safe and clean; it fails to institute tax structures that really work for the businesses. All of these factors are missing here.
Futurewise has played a successful role in enforcing the State Growth Management Act by slowing sprawl, but their logic and role falter when they propose that density become the major factor in reducing the carbon footprint. Their arguments disintegrate with close measuring of the energy cost involved in removing the existing single family housing and replacing it with new high density construction.
The bills in our state fail to mention the negative carbon-deficit in concrete, steel, or transportation costs involved in tearing down housing and replacing it with high-density configurations. As developers often say: “It just doesn’t pencil out.” We end up with a negative, not positive, carbon exchange with TOD.
Our elected representatives aren’t scientists. They are people like us, searching for ways to slow global warming. Like us they must act, and in doing so, they seek what seems the simplest and easiest path. When lobbyists pushed HB1490 and SB5687, and said the measures would make a difference, they believed what they were eager to believe. What this approach overlooks is that there is more to creating a successful city than creating density around transit stations.
Even if these proposals were tinkered with to lower density requirements, the bills still fail to acknowledge that functional cities require more than structures to house bodies. They require police, schools, libraries, firefighters, social services, parks, open space. They need adequately sized sewers; water, gas, electricity, and waste management, all built into proposed plans. Chicago, Boston, Baltimore and New York all struggle with high-density, public-subsidized housing near rail lines. Their studies of the social and public-safety problems are well known. So eager are our proponents to respond to environmental issues, that they may not have taken time to study the downside of creating high density pockets of tenement-like buildings near rail lines.
As thoughtful people, we have come to understand there are no easy steps to combat global warming. While research scientists may be unified about the nature of the problem, along with environmentalists, the public, and legislators, they are less sure which steps to take first to slow global warming. The list seems endless.
This also has to be said: Americans rarely miss an opportunity to make a buck. Saving the environment as a profit venture is just the latest example. Some in the environmental sphere have formed not-for-profit organizations that benefit from public funding. They establish think tanks, advisory groups and sophisticated lobbying efforts. They often team up with commercial interests that do environmental abatement, or promote and design environmentally safe products or practices. This includes developers standing ready to build high-density housing as soon as the legislature makes it a requirement.
There is another factor that floats unspoken in the background. It is the possibility that this mandated effort toward densification is part of a larger plan: urban redevelopment. We need to remember Kelo vs New London, the 2005 US Supreme Court decision that allowed a city or transit authority to acquire private property and resell it to another private party. If eminent domain was pursued in areas designated for transit area development, it could force homeowners to lose their homes and have the property resold to private developers.
Those promoting the legislation have apparently forgotten that any city in Washington already has the authority to create any kind of zoning they wish. Should any city believe that high-density zoning addresses its long range plans — the geography, demographics, expected growth and ability to provide public services — then they can rezone any way and time they wish. There simply is no need to mandate density at the state rather than the local level.
Author Robert Ruark's novel made a compelling case that if you take away basic elements of a culture, you must replace it with “Something of Value.” It would serve our state well if people who care about all aspects of its future would use their organizational energy to lobby for the creation of renewable-energy sources, rather than supporting measures that mandate tenement buildings statewide.
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